Death of a salesman

Gregarious and lonely, adventurous and hidebound, incorrigible but powerless, the travelling salesman used to be a powerful American emblem. By Robert Winder; A Hundred Years on the Road by Timothy Spears Yale, pounds 24

The travelling salesman is one of the stock figures in American life and art. In western after western we find him hanging around outside the saloon, a lippy charlatan with a bowler hat, peddling big-city cure- alls to guileless homesteaders. Unlike the big-hearted heroes of these adventures, this guy's a cowardly little squit who's not worth shooting: usually he winds up flat on his back in the only puddle this side of Sweetwater.

He ought to prove a rich source of good material, full of comical fibs and the snatched romance of life on the road; and Timothy Spears has included some nice quotations from enthusiastic "drummers'': "I have maid plenty of money," writes one, "since I've bin off the farm and don't have to work so hard." But for the most part, the author regards this sort of thing as trivial beside his stated aim, which is to complete "an ethnographic view of the marketplace." It's an ominous start.

Not that salesmanship isn't a good subject for scholarship. The business of America, Calvin Coolidge once said, was business, and the sheer size of the United States meant that commerce had to take to the open road. The rise of the drummer was also the rise of the consumer society - what one commentator called "the goods life". And the death of the salesman (depicted elegiacally by Arthur Miller) was brought about by the development of new selling techniques - mail order, mass-media advertising. It's a poignant story: the early drummers were self-seeking loners, their successors merely obedient cogs.

The salesman lives on, of course, as a wholesaler's rep, nudging his shiny car into motels with a mobile phone and a six-pack of Brylcreem. But the romantic days of the old-style travelling man are long gone. In retrospect, he does indeed seem a suggestive emblem: both gregarious and lonely, at once adventurous and hidebound, incorrigible yet powerless. He's far from home, with only a big cigar and his own thick skin for company - a modern, bureaucratic version of the Pioneers.

But if this is a story that seems both profound and neglected, you have to say, after reading Timothy Spears's earnest analysis, that it is still neglected. The author has trudged through the reading list so assiduously - the bibliography cites around 800 titles - that his book is, more than anything, a piece of criticism about the figure of the salesman in American literature. But in his race for meaning, he wastes the chance to let the story do the talking: it takes him several chapters to mention, in passing, what these old salesmen were selling (clocks, furniture, sewing machines, jewellery, cosmetics, chewing gum, seeds, canned meat and condensed milk). He never tires of telling us that drummers were middlemen in "a commercial culture determined to win customers and sell goods'', but rarely considers putting this a different way and saying that it was a culture determined to go shopping and acquire goods.

Spears is good on the eager support America's sales force gave to certain quack sciences like phrenology. But would you buy a used car from a guy who writes that his profession "was determined to assimilate and standardize vernacular sales practices and modes of self-representation"?

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